Blogged by Dave
Slovenia has been a place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time, but it has always been a little too difficult to manage, either in terms of getting a visa or finding an easy flight or train into the country. Fortunately it is now a Schengen country, which sorts out the visa, and because of our route through Eastern Europe, we could catch a direct train from Budapest. Slovenia used to be part of Yugoslavia and was the first region to break away to form an independent country, and was fortunate to avoid the bloodshed that occurred in the other former Yugoslavian states (other than a short 5 day war). The country is quite small, with only around 2 million people, but prosperous, and feels a bit like a mixture between northern Italy and Austria. The landscape is stunning, with lots of mountains and forests, and quaint villages dotted around the landscape. About 50% of the country is covered in forests and the small population gives it much more of an untouched feel compared to other European countries we’ve been to.
Our first stop was Lake Bled (with a change of train in Ljubljana), a medium sized lake in a valley at the base of the Julian Alps. It’s one of Slovenia’s main tourist spots (for both locals and international visitors), but is much less developed than other similar places. The setting is stunning, with mountains on all sides, a small castle perched on a cliff above the lake and a small church on a tiny island in the middle. The water is heated by thermal springs, and when we were there it was 26C. It’s a lovely 1 hour walk around the lake, and there are some short hikes that you can take to some viewpoints in the surrounding hills. There’s a variety of non-motorized watersports to do on the lake, and several places to swim. We stayed a bit away from the lake in the town of Lesce Bled, as accommodation prices at the lake skyrocket in summer, but getting to and from the lake was fairly straightforward using either a local bus or our nice hostel’s shuttle (1A Adventure Hostel: http://www.hostel1a.com). We were lucky with the weather and instead of the forecast rain we had (mostly) sunshine, and so had a great day out exploring the area around the lake. If we has more time we would have done some of the rafting in the area, but we did get time to visit the nearby Vintgar Gorge, which is worth a visit but we recommend getting there early to avoid the large crowds.
Next up we headed further along the valley to Triglav National Park, the area around Lake Bohinj, a much quieter and less developed lake than Bled. The setting is even more spectacular as it is right in the middle of the Alps. This park is covered with hiking trails, and to maximise our time hiking we booked a room in one of the chalets in Vogel (http://www.vogel.si/winter), a small ski resort 1000m above the lake (reachable by cable car). There are a variety of different length hikes starting from the centre of the resort and a few of the chairlifts run during summer to help those who aren’t keen on a steep climb. We did a circular hike, starting by heading to Mount Vogel and then cutting across to Mount Sija and then back to the centre. The cloud moved in as we got near Vogel, so we didn’t go all the way to the top, but we really loved the hike. It’s a fairly easy hike, although people with vertigo may struggle in places and it takes about 5 hours (longer like us if you stop every 10 minutes to take a photo of the great views). We were fortunate to have the trail mostly to ourselves, especially around Vogel.
After Triglav we caught a bus to Ljubljana, the capital, which is situated pretty much in the centre of the country. It’s a great base as pretty much everywhere else in the country can be reached within 3 hours. We stayed a night there in an AirBnB near the castle (which dominates the centre of the city) and spent our time exploring the old town area. One of the highlights was Cacao, a ice cream spot near the famous Triple Bridge. Probably the best ice cream we have ever had, and we ended up going back there twice more! The city is really compact and easy to explore on foot, and has some great restaurants and bars. An interesting area to visit is Metelkova City for some cool street art and sculptures and a bit of an alternative party. Anne was very excited to find good reasonably priced wine everywhere – a big change from some of the other countries on our trip.
The following day we made our way down to the medieval Mediterrean town of Piran, stopping at the Postojna Caves on the way. It’s a little tricky doing the caves this way, but not as difficult as some of the websites made it out to be. There is a daily bus from Ljubljana main bus station that goes directly to the entrance of the caves (like all buses in Slovenia it is impossible to book online – get a ticket from the bus station). You can save a bit of money by getting the bus & cave entrance ticket combo. You want to start early as there is some waiting around. There are lockers where you can leave your bags at the entrance to the caves. The limestone caves are very impressive, and worth the trip, although be prepared to be in a very large group of people – up to 200 during busy times! Getting to Piran requires walking about 20 – 30 minutes to the Postojna town bus station and catching the next bus to Piran.
Piran is a very pretty little medieval town perched on the end of a small peninsula. It is still reasonably original with lots of narrow winding streets and quaint Venetian style buildings. It was a lot less crowded that we expected and seems to have a reasonably large permanent population, which gives it a much more genuine feel compared to other similar towns. The peninsula is rocky and so there are no sandy beaches – rather there are two concrete platforms on either side of town which serve as the main ‘beaches’, although many people just set up their deck chairs and towels on the pavement. We did a good walking tour that had only started up a few months before (https://piranwalkingtour.com), and had some great pizza (Piran has a large Italian speaking population). It’s a great little town and was a really chilled way to spend our last few days in Eastern Europe.
Our final night was was spent in Ljubljana but we managed to visit Slovenia’s only world heritage site, the Skocjan Caves, on the way back to Ljubljana. Organizing this was quite a bit more tricky that the other caves, but definitely worth it. It appears as if the management of the caves is not that keen on independent travelers, and each step of the journey involves a lot of wasted time. We caught the earliest bus from Piran to the town of Divaca, about 5kms from the cave. Here we found that there are free shuttles to the caves but that they all leave before the first bus from Piran arrives. Instead of walking 5km with our bags, we caught a taxi to the caves where we found that, even if we had caught the free shuttle we would have had to wait around for an hour as both the tour and the free shuttle leave on the hour. The return shuttles to Divaca are not coordinated to the buses to Ljubljana, so there is even more waiting on the way back. The caves are however worth the effort. They are quite different from Postojna, which had amazing stalactites and stalagmites, and instead have incredibly large caverns, including one around 130m deep with a river flowing along the bottom. Half the time it feels like you are in a Lord of the Rings film – such an amazing place. It’s worth doing both parts of the tour – the second part is partially above ground and unguided so you can go at your own pace.
Our last night in Ljubljana was spent exploring a bit further out in the more modern area, as well as taking a walk up to the castle. All in all we loved Slovenia – beautiful scenery, great food, relatively uncrowned even in the height of tourist season and very reasonably priced. We’d love to come back in the future.
Next stop: Home to Johannesburg (via a very expensive Amsterdam) for a few weeks before heading off on Stage 7 – South East Asia Rebooted!